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Soul Surfing: Long Beach Island

written by Lisa Simek

A group of surfers on the beach in Surf City in June of 1966. Courtesy of Janet Giersch and the New Jersey Surf Museum at Tuckerton Seaport.

Photographs of Long Beach Island in the 1920s and 1930s look like something from another world. Wedged in between Asbury Park and Atlantic City, it was seemingly the last frontier of the Jersey Shore: a desolate and rugged island, with an old-world tourism sector on the South end and a few scattered bungalows—home to mostly fisherman and hunters—in the North. There was one locomotive trestle, and later, a wooden automobile bridge accessing the island. There even was a horse and buggy trolley within the quaint little resort community. No summertime gridlock, no traffic lights, no paved roads for that matter. Census records show that in 1930 towns such as Surf City and Harvey Cedars had total populations of 77 and 51 people respectively, Long Beach Township had 289 residents and the most popular resort destination of Beach Haven came in the highest with a total population of 712.

Surf culture is so strongly embedded in our lives currently—the clothes we buy, the music we listen to, the types of food we eat, even the way we communicate—that it’s hard to comprehend its nonexistence in those days. There were no surf magazines, surf movies, pro surfer role models, or even actors that pretended to embody surf lifestyle. Aside from trying to recreate what they saw on a picture or two from a newsreel about surfing in Hawaii, no one on Long Beach Island really knew how to surf waves. The first surfers of the area pretty much had to figure out surfing on their own, riding whatever they could make or get their hands on, often improvising along the way: canoes, belly boards, old household doors, even their mother’s ironing boards. It wasn’t until 1937 when a man referred to as “The Godfather of Modern Surfing” (a Native Hawaiian named Duke Kahanamoku) and another accredited as being the founder of California surf culture and pioneer of modern day surf boards (Tom Blake) toured the East Coast together performing surf demonstrations that things changed in New Jersey. According to Ship Bottom surf frequenter Gordon “Mike” Howes, he and his friend, Surf City summer resident Henry “Stretch” Pohl, witnessed Duke and Tom surfing in Atlantic City and that moment was lifechanging, as it validated what they had suspected all along—it was possible to ride a surfboard on New Jersey’s waves.

That same year Popular Mechanics printed an article by the famed Tom Blake in which he detailed the carving of his hollow surfboard design in the do-it-yourself section, and that’s when local board shaping had its moment. Rich Lisiewski of what is the present-day Brighton Beach Surf Shop was one of the many original surfboard crafters, known for his custom Collier and well-known pop-out Matador that he started shaping in the ‘40s and ‘50s and later sold in his Long Beach Island shop in the 1960s. Lisiewski’s surf retail shop was also one of the first on the island to start selling bikinis on Long Beach Island—a monumental cultural shift in its own right.

But it was Mike Howes’s surfing buddy throughout the ‘30s and the ‘40s, Henry “Stretch” Pohl, who came to be known as Long Beach Island’s founding father of surfing. Not only was he a passionate surfer who worked tirelessly to promote the pastime within the community, but he is accredited with establishing the first surfing beaches on the barrier island (by means of founding the Long Beach Island Surfing Association), organizing the first surf contest on the island, teaching residents how to surf, and even shaping his own boards. He essentially paved the way for water safety education for local beach patrol, lifeguards, and residents alike. In fact, both gentlemen had turned their aquatic passions into lifelong careers with the Red Cross, mainly as Directors of Water Safety, and together they wrote a myriad of disaster preparedness articles and water safety manuals that were distributed around the globe. They held countless demonstrations locally and regionally, teaching lifeguards about the rescue paddleboard and other lifesaving techniques that are still relevant today. Howe’s son shares that his mother, father, and Stretch made one of the world’s first color surf movies right here in Jersey during the summer of 1941, and segments of that movie demonstrated how Blake boards could be used for live-saving purposes.

Surf culture on Long Beach Island without the mention of local retailer Ron “Ron Jon” DiMenna would be incomplete, as in the 1960s this surfer turned his trailer-selling-surfboards-on-the-causeway setup into one of the most recognized and successful surf retail chains of its time. (The Cocoa Beach, Florida, store is currently the largest surfing shop in the world and even houses the Cocoa Beach Surf Museum.) LBI native and lifelong surfer Bill Willem recalls of DiMenna, “As a kid in the 1960s I remember asking if I could hitch a ride on his camper, and I would take a seat in the back alongside his dog, a big Bloodhound, until we reached 22nd Street, where I would just sit on the beach and watch him surf for hours.” Without a doubt, there are numerous legendary surfers on Long Beach Island—too many to name—that have influenced the island’s culture both past and present. One of them happens to be Surf City’s own Bill Willem. His walls may be lined with trophies and awards, but the most noteworthy one of his recent years is the first time in Eastern Surfing Association history that a father and son took home 1st place championship titles simultaneously at the ESA 2011 Easterns® competition—his younger son Conner winning the Men’s short board title, while Bill the won the Legends short board title. As accomplished of a surfer as Bill is, the second generation of surfers in the Willem family—brothers Brendan and Conner— encompass the same passion and ability for the sport as their father.

Make no mistake, women were on the forefront of surfing right alongside the men. And in the 1960s, female surfers stole the show. Not only did they help popularize the ever-trending bikini, but their surfing skills garnered spectators up and down the island. One surfer by the name of Patricia Browning “Bonnie” Roth was known for her Hotcurl Hawaiian-style surfboard, and went by the name of “Hazel Hotcurl.” Not only was she a lifeguard who went on to join the Marine Police, but she also hailed from a family with a local clam business. Today she is known as “The Clam Lady” or “Captain Brownie” and operates a fresh seafood clam shack that even past Presidents have frequented. Another legendary surfer who has been surfing The Wooden Jetty for over 50 years is Mary Buck-Frack. Just a petit teenager in the ‘60s, she reminisces about carrying her “heavy as a tank” 9’3” Ventura surfboard on her head to the beach because she couldn’t even wrap her arm around the massive board. She was serious about the sport, and chuckled that the boys of her day would know to steer clear when she was about to drop in on a good wave—she even married a sensational surfer that impressed her at a competition back in the day. This musician and gymnast is now in her 60s and still participates in surfing competitions (and rocks them), and has also passed down her hang ten skills to her family’s next generation of talented surfers.

You may find yourself asking, aside from lifeguards and local fishermen, in what ways does surf culture continue to influence the community present-day? Many restaurants on the island parlay their soul surfing philosophies into sustainably caught, locally sourced, creative quality fare (Black Eyed Susans founding chef is a surfer). Another great example lies in the Jetty brand apparel company. It began on LBI and has since grown to be not only one of the most recognizable surf apparel brands on the East Coast (also developing its own eco-friendly screen printing process), but also one of the most charitable. The Jetty Rock Foundation—the non-profit arm of the Jetty brand—has to date donated community service and more than $700,000 back to the LBI community for various initiatives including Hurricane Sandy disaster relief, scholarships, co-ed fundraising surf competitions, and local industry/academia partnerships such as the Oyster Recycling program.

Likewise, another local non-profit Alliance for a Living Ocean (ALO) was also founded by surfers, with the intent to work towards a pollution-free ocean and healthy aquatic ecosystem. The ALO organization focuses on legislative action, educational activities, and individual responsibilities as well as informative programs to help stop ocean, beach, and bay pollution. In addition to their conservation-themed community events and ecologically-based guided tours, their most popular fundraiser is the ALO LBI Longboard Classic. Held annually during the month of August on a central location in Long Beach Island, the competition brings together old generations of surfers with new, surfing together on classic boards from the 1960s, for the common goal of supporting the organization and its initiatives.

In the spirit of discussing the pioneering watermen of long ago, one of LBI’s trailblazing aquatic men of modern times, hailing from Surf City, is professional surfer and Harvey Cedars Beach Patrol Captain Randy Townsend. When asked about his sentiments towards surfing, he shares, “It still has me feeling the same way now as it did then... like I belonged to something special, greater than anything else. It truly is the fountain of youth.” Referred to by locals as a person that everyone knows and loves, and as a role model for the younger generation to look up to, this surfer has recently been named as the Regional Director of the Northeast Chapter of the National Scholastic Surfing Association (NSSA). Under his leadership, the Harvey Cedars Beach Patrol has been the team to beat year after year during the Annual Epic Lifeguard Tournament (among countless additional regional and statewide competition titles).

Since its inception, surfing always has and forever will be an influential part of the culture on Long Beach Island. Its philosophies subsist as a way of life for locals, a peaceful means of slowing down for summer residents, and an exciting and challenging new activity for tourists. It is a driver of the local economy in many ways, and a stimulant of community action to protect our beaches and seas. Whether it’s a dawn patrol session with friends, an afternoon session to get wet, or the first time up on a board, surfing is a way to unplug from the modern world and recharge the soul—which is exactly what the best moments on Long Beach Island are all about.

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